captcha by golly wow – another boob by the beeb

Captchas have always been exclusive; firstly it took time to convince  designers an alternative to the visual code was necessary and secondly when audio options were finally provided they were next to useless. If you haven’t tried an audio captcha then you should. They are typical of the tokenistic attitudes which underlie the majority of web design and development. I don’t know what’s worse – content provided in a single fixed format or an alternative version which doesn’t work.

The BBC has come up with the worst alternative yet. Try emailing an article (I tried with an article about pulling the plug on the NHS e-records system after 9 years of failures – I thought the synchronicity was apt!)  To complete the email link process you need to use a captcha. When you select the listen option a QuickTime file opens and initially it sounds good; for once you can actually make out what is being said – but once you’ve listened you realise file has taken over the window with no way of return to the original page where the captcha was in the first place. Nice one BBC. Did you not think to try it out on anyone first?

Better late than never?

Digital divides had some publicity this week – the Guardian Professional Housing Network Blog (so if you’re not online you’re unlikely to have read it) ran a piece by James Grant from Joseph Rowntree Foundation called Housing should take the lead on digital and social exclusion. It calls for housing associations to empower tenants by providing internet connections. Great idea. It would certainly be useful and shame the comments are so few. Where are all the advocates for digital inclusion???? But once again, the answer to digital divides is being seen as access. While the article says almost half of those not online are disabled this is merely a statement with no solution. Anyone operating outside the standard MEE-Model of Mouse, Eyes and Ears soon comes up against the triple barriers posed by assistive technology; too expensive, too steep a learning curve and a WWW which is too reliant on visual access.

Yesterday I met the New Media Director and Web Content Developer of a local web design company, Strawberry, who have won the role of redeveloping the HERIB website. It’s a fantastic opportunity for them to get an up-front understanding of inclusive digital design which looks great while still being fully accessible to users with sight loss who operate a wide range of assistive technology. Broadly speaking, this divides into screen magnification and screen reading software – each available in multiple formats and all with a range of pros and cons. I was encouraged by their genuine interest but saddened by how new the concepts of people with visual impairment accessing the Internet were and how far the world of web designers is removed from the reality of  digital exclusion.

Lest we forget – in 1997 at the very start of the WWW, Tim Berners Lee called for equity of access and participation.

“As we move towards a highly connected world it is critical that the web be usable by anyone regardless of individual capabilities and disabilities. The W3C is committed to removing accessibility barriers for all people with disabilities – including the deaf, blind, physically challenged, and cognitive or visually impaired. We plan to work aggressively with government, industry, and community leaders to establish and attain Web accessibility goals.”  (Berners Lee, 1997)

My hope is that partnerships between organisations like HERIB and Strawberry, alongside the advocacy of those calling for greater awareness of the impact of a digital society and its subsequent digital divides, will prove to be the answer;  a case of better late than never.

Berners Lee, T. (1997) World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Launches Web Accessibility Initiative. WAI press release 7 April 1997. Available at

exclusion by language…

I’ve been sent a link reporting on an Accessibility Hack Event at Birmingham. This is a great idea – put together the people who are interested in accessibility. We should do this at Lincoln. Here’s a few comments on the blog post.  

The affordances of digital data have never been utilised effectively – it’s the optimum opportunity for ensuring equality of digital access but too often the theory gets privileged over practice and the opening promotion video by GPII is typical:

e.g. user is recognised at public access point and now sees large print on ticket machine = one happy user  but…. magnified text requires increased screen size – other wise you need navigational devices which then mean all the information can’t be seen at once… another e.g…..back of seat monitor on aircraft customised to suit user preferences – you can hardly see (or hear) these in the first place – so increased text size is not going to assist…

The ratio between content and monitor size is so relevant but easily overlooked.  I’m working with someone with macular degeneration whose family have bought them a new widescreen Acer laptop all set up to display large tools and text. But email via Windows Live is almost unusable because the screen size doesn’t support the chosen display size. Sounds obvious but unless you’ve tried it….

The idea of providing accessibility rather than having to  adapt to a standard environment has long been a dream of Assistive Technology users. This is why I’m so interested in the idea of ‘intuitive digital data’ which knows how to adapt to the device being used or ideally can provide itself in the appropriate file format as requested – something I believe we are working towards.

A keynote speaker at the event was correct in saying accessibility should be a right for all, and whereas most people see accessibility as about disabled people, it is actually about everybody – then they spoiled it saying the aim is to deliver the best website that is ‘accessible to as many people as possible, a website that is accessible to everyone would just be text, which would be ugly’.

This second statement is both contradiction and backwards step – accessibility is not about as many people as possible – it’s about everyone full stop – and a website which is accessible to everyone does not have to be plain text – that’s the reason text-only alternatives were dropped. A fully accessible website can have pictures and multimedia and interactive forms – it just needs to include the information to be given in alternative formats,  and all content to be correctly and appropriately labeled for screen readers.

An Accessibility Hack Day is a great opportunity to bring people together to talk about important issues. It’s in the nature of digital exclusion to be invisible. But the key issue the blog post raised for me is how the language was indicative of the current cultural shift away from the social model of disability – which sees the external environment as disabling by not recognising and providing for a diversity of requirements (digital disability is an ideal example where we have the technology to ensure 100% access but all the barriers are economic, political etc) and back to the old medical model of disability which saw the reason for lack of participation as being caused by individual impairment – be that physical, sensory or cognitive. It’s concerning how the language of disability is changing with references to disabled people rather than people being disabled by society – you may think this is being pedantic – but it isn’t.

The GPII video says ‘those of us with disabilities often run into a situation where the technology doesn’t work well enough to meet our abilities’. Another presenter refers to ‘people who are severely disabled with motor neurone disease’  These are examples of language use which need to be challenged. The Social Model calls for disability to be seen as something imposed on individuals by society – motor neurone disease is an impairment – and to call someone disabled by it is an example of the old medical model in action. I worked with someone with motor neurone disease whose used a computer for years. But the disease is reducing ability to move fingers and keyboards are designed with the assumption that we will only hit one key at a time.  With a keyguard in place, the computer can be used again (although it means a laptop remains inaccessible). 

The solution lies first and foremost in the external environment where the limitations of the technology are the disabling factor. Subscribing to a social barriers model is an essential prerequisite to enabling independence and social participation – in particular with ensuriong digital inclusion.  Technology can be empowering but the problems begin when perceived solutions derive from the viewpoint of the technologist – not the user – we have to step outside of our world and into the life-world of other people in order to experience the barriers to know how best to help remove them.

Finally – the disclaimer at the end of the GPII video sort of says it all.

The contents however do not necessarily represent the policy of the funders and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.  It would have been more encouraging if it had said Accessibility is the policy of the funders and you can assume endorsement!

lest we forget….

While protests are in the news there’s another – more invisible – coalition led disaster which is causing exclusion and distress on a daily basis. This is the government’s attitude towards people with sight loss who are struggling to operate in digital environments because of insufficient action to ensure digitally inclusive practice and accessible web design. As the government moves towards the online-only provision and management of welfare it’s doing nothing to challenge the increasingly visual nature of the Internet and digital designers assumptions of a narrow range of access criteria (i.e. everyone uses a Mouse, their Eyes and Ears – the MEE-Model). This is making it difficult to impossible for users of assistive technology, in particular screen readers, to have equity of digital access. At the same time it also ensures denial of participation in the public sphere where the platforms for debate and dissent are increasingly digital ones.

Digital discrimination is already a serious problem and will become even more critical as more services look to online provision believing it will increase efficiency and cut costs. Assumptions about access need to be challenged; not everyone can operate an out of the box laptop bought from a local supermarket or a high street retailer and the way in which the government is choosing to ignore this is an issue which needs to be made more public.

District 6

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District 6 is a community museum which uses story-telling to recover and display memories. It tells the story of the forced removal of an entire black community from Capetown. In 1966 under the Group Areas Act of 1950, District 6 was declared a White Group Area. In the next decade over 60,000 people were forcibly removed to the barren lands outside Capetown known as the Cape Flats and their streets and homes flattened by bulldozers. The District 6 Museum contains the collective memories of their eviction. I don’t know who saved the street signs. Its one of those questions you don’t think to ask at the time. Or the examples of the mass manufactured signs with the messages SLEGS BLANKES and VIR GEBRUIK DEUR BLANKES but these remain stark reminders of the inhumanity of Apartheid. The floor of District 6 is a street map of the area. The tapestries hanging from the ceiling have been created by the people who lived there. The white sheets are an invitation for visitors to write down and leave behind their stories. As an outsider, I can’t comment with any authority because I wasn’t there but I can bring back pictures as a reminder of the need to celebrate diversity and not discriminate against it.

Imizamo Yethu

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You could visit Capetown and believe it is a prosperous city; the streets are clean, the new Victoria and Alfred Waterside offers multiple retail and leisure opportunities and tourist guides go to great lengths to point out the affluent beach apartments and hotels. You could think the democracy which followed Apartheid in 1994 had solved the city’s racial divides – but you only need scratch the surface to see inequality and poverty still exists. Massively. It’s evident in the city where you are advised not to go out alone at night. To walk the streets during the day is to be jostled and asked for money for sick relatives and dying children. On the Cape flats there are miles of shanty towns stretching as far as you can see and opportunities to visit these – in the company of a tour guide – which sounds like an anomaly – but this is cultural tourism at its rawest – there’s no fun or pleasure involved – its dirty and difficult. For hundreds of thousands of people, the hope for a better future after Apartheid remains hope rather than actuality. You have to hold onto hope because when you have so little, there’s not much else. The hope in Imizamo Yethu (meaning “our combined effort” in Xhosa) is with the children along with the school, library and church but when your ‘home’ has no toilet or running water life is tough. While politicians wrangle (and have ‘homes’ with amenities) it’s charitable organizations like the Niall Mellon Foundation in Ireland who are making a difference by building houses with sanitation and electricity. But nowhere near enough to go round. Then there’s the tourist trade. It’s uncomfortable to experience social inequity on a scale like this and not least because you know you are only visiting before returning to a better living place. The difference you can make feels minimal and Imizamo Yetho represents only a tiny proportion of the human struggle for survival. In these finance stressed times, the value of conferences is often questioned but they offer a unique exposure to the human consequences of international politics. At Lincoln, strategic emphasis on internationalization will hopefully further opportunities to promote the sharing of cultural difference and social justice, in both their positive and negative forms. Conferences are bridges in the process of internationalizing the higher education experience. They offer potential opportunities to bring back stories of the stark realities of difference and remind us we are all human. We all want the same things – to be warm and dry, to have food and water and to raise our children in the hope they will have a better life. Conferences are not a luxury; they’re a reminder that higher education in the UK is still a highly prized commodity and that in many parts of the world, turning on the tap is still a privilege and not a right.

Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations

This link is to my public iGoogle page listing a range of short Assistive Technology videos. These demonstrate the inherent flexibility of digital data to adapt to multiple input and output devices. Link to iGoogle Assistive Technology videos

Here is a link to the presentation slides for ‘Access Enabled Access Denied: supporting inclusive practice with digital data’  DiversityConference presentation slides

For any further conversations please do get in touch at

What’s in a name?

Quite a lot actually.  Juliet may have said ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’* but you need to choose its substitute with care. Dogwort is the prettiest of spring flowers but would you recognise it? Exactly! Whereas everyone knows a rose even if your only experience is modern hybrids which are all colour and no scent.  

Fancy fonts are a bit like todays roses; all style and no substance. Fonts are like people; they have their own characters and personalities. The problem starts when  the font you choose says more about you than the message you want to put across. A disaster in the art of communication.  Naming is a tricky art; a conundrum which lies at the heart of marketing – how best to deliver the message succinctly and with style?

How best to name a staff development workshop where it needs to convey the message that attending is worth an hour or two of your time. I’ve developed a session which looks at working with digital data and ensuring the information we put online can be accessed by everyone, regardless of the ways in which they use their computers. It’s about recognising difference and diversity but in relation to operating within digital environments. Take-up on the sessions isn’t great. Paul Stainthorp has suggested this could be symptomatic of the lack of importance placed on accessibility, usability and access issues in general. I think Paul is right – but public institutions have a responsibility to ensure digital content follows inclusive practice guidelines. Which is why a little awareness raising is not a bad thing. But how best to get the message across?

With hindsight maybe the title Promoting Inclusive Practice with Digital Data isn’t the best of choices. I like the phrase Digital Literacy but first responses suggest it’s making the same mistakes. The meaning is clear to me but I’m not standing outside the box. I like Know your Fonts but it’s not much better – I know what I mean but how can I be sure that meaning is explicit? Maybe there isn’t a title with universal appeal. Maybe we’ve all become too set in our digital ways. I don’t yet have the answer. But you have to appreciate the subtle irony that a workshop about getting the digital message across successfully has a title which is failing to get that message across in the first place!

* Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Unhappy New Year

Dyer Witheford writes about the organic nature of capitalism; how it is capable of self-regulation and perpetual shape changing; always looking for different markets and new opportunities for commoditisation; objects or people, it doesn’t care. Capacity for resistance is limited. Progress may look promising but rarely lasts. To exist outside capitalism’s access criteria is to be marginalised and disempowered.  The current attack on systems of welfare, in particular the Disabled Living Allowance, is one such example. There are glimmers of hope Disability benefit cuts ‘could breach law’   but they do little to disguise the reality where the hard fought, hard won, gains of the disability movement are being dismantled. It’s a ‘one step forward three steps’ back scenario and wrong on so many levels, not least where medical science continues to value quantitative life over qualitative, but social welfare fails to keep up. In the 1980s recognition that society disables, through failure to recognise and cater for the diversity of human existence, did so much to challenge old medical models of deficiency. Shifting the emphasis from the individual to social structures was a beginning but never enough; there is still more to do in terms of achieving equity of access to opportunities for participation. Thirty years on, that which was given is now at risk of being taken away or provided in a format that is no longer realistic. The focus on work as the best form of welfare ignores the failure of the workplace to cater for diversity and obscures deeper aversive reactions to human diversity and difference.

The government’s public consultation on Disability Living Allowance reform ends on 14 February. The public consultation page is here

Unfortunately it doesn’t follow the ‘write-to-reply’ style public consultation whereby comments are publically available – another backwards step in the creation of the Big Society excuse for dismantling essential provision of welfare services.

Hat-trick – all talk and no action?

It’s been a busy few months for e-accessibility. You could be excused for missing the Single Equality Act  October 1st because the media seemed to miss it too. The Act significantly increased responsibility on information providers to ensure their online content is accessible for disabled people; so it can only be a matter of time before a successful exposure of the inaccessibility of 99% of public websites to access technology – can’t it?

Next: the e-Accessibility Action Plan: Making Digital Content Available to Everyone on October 12th. This reminds us e-Accessibility is essential as the government delivers more and more services online  (Universal Credit anyone?) and will ‘ensure accessibility, affordability and equal participation for disabled users in the digital economy’

Final player in this triptych: BS 8878:2010 Web accessibility – Code of practice on December 7th.  The BSI says it’s the first British Standard to address the growing challenge of digital inclusion Hurray… but then identifies the excluded as being the disabled and older people Boo…..

Two issues here. Firstly the government appears to be moving further away from Labour’s explicit linkage of digital exclusion with existing categories of social exclusion. The UK National plan for digital participation included low income households, people with no formal qualifications, single parents, new immigrants and those living in geographically remote communities alongside older and disabled people (2010:13) as groups likely to experience digital exclusion. Secondly the new trend of linking disability and older people is worrying; it’s a blanket expression that implies ‘not part of the workforce’ therefore not contributing to the economy. The message that inclusive practice benefits all is missing.

The social model of disability was a giant step for individual rights to participation but the original meaning (an individual disabled by society not by themselves) is being diluted and the ‘society’ part forgotten. Slowly but surely we are moving back to a deficit medical model. Boundary lines are being redrawn and the label ‘disabled’ continues to imply exclusion through unwelcome difference. We need to fight this discriminatory mergence. The Papworth Trust write 83% of people  disabled by society acquire their disability in life; they are not born with it. All of us however, will get old.